Who should have the hand on the purse strings?

November 4, 2009 at 10:36 am 1 comment

A report published this week suggests that one in ten of schools in Birmingham are in the red. This is not a unique situation facing Birmingham City Council. Most authorities in the land will have schools where the finances are out of control.

Why is this? The management of each school, if asked, would no doubt have differing reasons and excuses. But I’ll wager a bet that there will be an underlining reason for all of them. The day to day management and responsibility of what, in some cases, can be vast multi million pound budgets are in the hands of the wrong people. Not bad people. Not fraudulent people. Just inexperienced people.

Ask most teachers why they entered the profession and it is because they wanted to educate. They wanted to guide children through their journey of discovery and learning. Those who chose to rise to the top jobs as heads and principals will mainly have progressed because of their educational and possibly administrative skills at running a school as a centre for learning. Very few, I would suggest, will have taken the role because they effectively wanted the financial management of an organization that equates to a medium sized business.

You wouldn’t recruit an experienced geography teacher to be Chief Executive of a Black Country engineering firm – would you?

The current financial management system of our schools is flawed. Yes – schools now have the added role of a bursar or business manager (a totally inappropriate title for the role). However, they are on the whole no more than support to the school head and to continue with the business comparison, this is usually at a level of remuneration and experience that you would expect to see as a junior management accountant or accounts clerk in the commercial world.

Given that we now expect schools to manage their day to day finances, we have clearly not provided the level of support needed. And the balances and checks from the local authorities are either too distant or too late and often both.

This is not the educationalists fault but that of government. On paper greater control and devolution of power and responsibility to teachers and governors is a good aim. When it comes to running a school from a disciplinary and educational stand point this is good. Being on the ground means you know how to handle issues in the best way from intimate knowledge.

Loosing the ties to the local authority and government has been a good thing in many ways. But clearly in the financial management of many schools it has not.

As a school governor for the past four years, I have seen up close and personal the responsibility and power that has been given to teachers whose focus and experience is not in financial management but in teaching. They are supported by overly large and cumbersome- often poorly performing and committed, governing bodies. It is a sad fact of life that where anything is voluntary – only a small number of those who get involved will ever demonstrably make a meaningful contribution. It falls to the committed few. But our children’s educational welfare is too important for such a system.

I am not advocating that every decision and key action once again goes back to be the responsibility of the local authority. No thank you. The quality and standard of advise from the Local Authority can be somewhat lacking at times. Even more so in the current climate when resources are going to be even further stretched. This is not a practicable or desirable outcome.

What is needed is a thorough review of how we manage schools. For starters, the form and responsibility of governing bodies. How we recruit them and what they are tasked to do.

We need to radically rethink the way in which we manage schools particularly larger ones.

I have sympathy for a system of school governance used in France. It might be described as a dual heads concept. A head is appointed from within the teaching environment who takes responsibility for all educational aspects, discipline, curriculum etc. They are joined in the school management structure by a head responsible for the overall business and administrative end of the school. This will encompass responsibility for the budget, personnel, the estate, sponsorship, revenues. With the French example this position is recruited from within the senior ranks of business.

Added to this concept we should add a smaller, well defined governing body that sit as scrutineers and advisors, critical friends. Governors should be recruited from all walks of life but with a track record in areas of life experience that will be of benefit to the running of the school. Therefore, an end of Governors who only come to meetings to ask why their Johnny was crying at break time and can the teacher responsible please be reprimanded. Effectively, they use it as a way of imposing their own agenda on staff.

Perhaps the financial crisis hitting many schools is the appropriate time for a massive re- think on how we govern and manage them. We do not want a banking style crisis to hit our school system.

Tim Rudman is Client Services Director at Urban Communications and a LEA Governor at Thorns Community College in the Black Country.
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Entry filed under: Tim's Musings. Tags: .

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Urban’s latest musings «  |  November 11, 2009 at 11:09 am

    […] Who should have the hand on the purse strings: Urban director Tim shares his thoughts on why many schools in the UK are experiencing financial woes. […]


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